Sgt. Slaughter addresses the...crowd?
Screenshot: WWE Network

The WWE Hidden Gems section of WWE Network’s on-demand library is one of the more reliably enjoyable things that the promotion offers, a weekly release of unseen or rarely seen footage from their vast archives that offers a compelling look at weird days gone by in the sport. Not every week is a home run, and there have been way too many releases focused on matches from WWE’s farm system promotions that were already on YouTube, but there has also been a wealth of good stuff and a steady flow of “holy grail” matches previously believed to be lost. One week, you might get a previously unavailable match of “The God of Pro Wrestling” Karl Gotch, or a complete, unaired 1983 card from the Omni in Atlanta. Another, you’ll get three hours of raw footage from Lex Luger’s promotional tour in 1993. And sometimes, as was the case this week, something shows up that both fills a gap and adds context to past historical narrative. The release in question, this week, also has the added benefit of being absolutely batshit insane. It’s the unaired pilot from 1989 for the AWA’s “Team Challenge Series” concept, which did end up happening, just not as originally envisioned.

Some background is in order. Leading up to the Fall 1989 television season, a rush of steroidal sports-adjacent competition shows like American Gladiators, Rollergames, and Tuff Trax were being sold to networks. According to the July 10, 1989 issue of Broadcasting, syndicators and programmers saw an opening in that nascent genre thanks to NBC’s recurring WWE specials outdrawing Saturday Night Live, which it occasionally preempted, in the Nielsen ratings. The new shows didn’t necessarily deliver in that way, with only American Gladiators emerging as a bonafide hit (and not always in late nights), but that wasn’t necessarily known in July. Just days after that issue of Broadcasting dropped, Steve Beverly—at the time an Auburn University professor moonlighting as the editor and publisher of the wrestling-on-TV newsletter Matwatch—heard about yet another entry into the crowded field.

“AWA, SYNDICATOR BOB SYRES OFFER RADICAL NEW PROPOSAL TO STATIONS” read the headline for the issue published on July 17th, leading off an article about the American Wrestling Association rebranding through a junk sports-style TV show. It made sense: The AWA, once one of the biggest money pro wrestling companies thanks to its strong midwest base, had by that point more or less collapsed, and rarely even ran live events outside of the odd taped TV show for ESPN. All-Star Wrestling, their syndicated show, would no longer have to be redundant to its ESPN show, and instead could offer different matches as part of an elaborate revenue-sharing deal with TV stations. The new concept was built around a tournament called the Team Challenge Series, and would see the whole roster competing for an eventual cash prize as part of one of three teams.

The tournament happened and it was terrible, but while it did indeed take over AWA programming, the larger rebranding didn’t happen. So it was the awesomely terrible unaired pilot for the more game show-esque version of the concept, which was designed to appeal to stations that didn’t get American Gladiators or Rollergames, that showed up on WWE Network on Thursday. (The show is dated October 23, 1989 in the description, but the tournament had already started by then. WWE-provided dates sometimes have no relation to reality.)

The show opens with women in bikinis doing an AWA-themed cheer in an empty studio, interspersed with clips of wrestling, some random band playing, and... yes, that is foxy boxing. Verne Gagne, the AWA’s promoter and former top star appears, with dog in hand, to sell viewers on the Team Challenge Series in a promo that recalls nothing so much as one of those ads that air on late-night cable for catheters or reverse mortgages or Medicare-covered back braces. “And now we’re entering at new era,” Gagne intones. “The AWA is introducing its Team Challenge Series, an ongoing team competition, with standings, determined by a point system. A first for professional wrestling. That, along with new television technology, brings you, the wrestling fan, directly into that ring.”

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We then dissolve to a control room, where announcer Ralph Strangis welcomes us to “the new AWA” and introduces his color analyst, Greg Gagne, Verne’s son; he refers to their location as “the satellite base.” Ralph promises “the world’s greatest wrestlers” and “the Beverly Hills Knockouts,” who are the aforementioned foxy boxing troupe, and “hot, new, exciting rock ‘n’ roll to help us usher in a whole new era in wrestling,” which is the last time that anything like rock ‘n’ roll appears in the broadcast. Greg adds that we will feel the action thanks to the unexplained new technology. Then they throw to “the satellite” and it immediately becomes apparent why this never aired anywhere.

It’s Tommy Jammer, in front of a green screen, walking through some background from Tron with a sped-up video of fans cheering—the same video on both sides of him, just flipped, that will later be used for every single entrance. Jammer heads offscreen, then enters a ring in an empty television studio. Where he was walking earlier is not explained, and neither is why there are no fans in the new space into which he has just sauntered. It seems as if the television audience was just supposed to think that there are fans there, as canned crowd noise has been dubbed in. At various points throughout the match there are also cutaways to fans, very clearly at a bar or restaurant and not in the studio, who are theoretically watching the match. It’s confusing, if less in Exciting New Technology ways than in What Is Even Happening Here ones.

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Besides not having to worry about drawing paying fans, the empty studio does allow AWA to use some different camera angles, but nothing groundbreaking. As for that “new television technology” that Verne mentioned earlier, the only concrete example on offer is slow-motion instant replay, which they dubbed a first for professional wrestling. It wasn’t—though it had perhaps not used mid-match before this, slow-motion replays had been around in wrestling since the early 1970s at the latest.

It’s not that this stuff looks ridiculous in 2018, although it really does. The more pressing issue is that it would have looked ridiculous in 1989. If this was the AWA’s overdue attempt at matching the production value of other nationally televised promotions, then it was an abject failure. It’s incoherent as all hell, too: Are we supposed to think there are fans in the studio? Or that the green screen entrance is real? There’s no indication that this pilot was intended solely as a rough facsimile for a slicker version that would air instead, either. The same basic template is followed for the next match, featuring The Destruction Crew (Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom) against Jerry Lynn and Ricky Rice. First, this happens:

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Enos and Bloom were a wonderfully promising pair of rookies who quickly turned into a pretty solid tag team; their trademark were entertaining interviews in which Bloom would always answer questions with “I’ll handle this one, Mike.” None of that is here. Instead, after bashing some green-screened buildings to dust, they do the same poor man’s Road Warriors interview that every jacked up rookie did in the ‘80s. From there, manager “Luscious” Johnny Valiant escorts them through the digital void and into the ring for a match with Jerry Lynn and Ricky Rice. The match itself is actually pretty good; most of the wrestling in the show is, at worst, perfectly fine. It’s the everything else that’s the problem.

The much-hyped appearance of the “Beverly Hills Knockouts,” which features some jarring point-of-view camera angles on what’s supposed to be a mildly plausible junk sports show, comes next. Why this is even part of the AWA Team Challenge Series is never explained, and neither is it entirely clear whether the foxy boxers are supposed to be famous enough that viewers should know who they are. Their portion of the show is exactly what you would expect: Scantily-clad women doing bad toughman contest-rules boxing which quickly breaks down into even worse pro wrestling, all of which is made extra dangerous by the tiny foxy boxing ring they’re in and an obvious lack of training. It’s clear that this is here to sex up the show and theoretically make it more attractive to TV stations (and eventually viewers), but it’s incongruous with everything else and wince-inducing on its own merits. It would have been weird on any pro wrestling show in 1989, but it’s glaringly strange in something affiliated with AWA, which was historically one of the most mundane promotions in the sport.

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Thankfully, someone, somewhere realized what a disaster this pilot was, and the Team Challenge Series that later aired on television consisted of matches taped at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota. Well, mostly: One of those early tapings was shot in an empty, pink room, with security guards present to prevent interference. There was no crowd noise dubbed in, no canned crowd shots or “futuristic” entrance. Just wrestlers doing stupid things like participating in “The Great American Turkey Hunt,” which was, for lack of a better term, a Frozen Turkey On A Pole Match without any attempts at fancy production. It was superior to the unaired pilot, if just barely, but then that’s not saying much.


David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.